According to a new widget in the right sidebar, our post entitled “On This Date: August 29 & 30” is the top post here at Lofty Ambitions. That’s one of the posts we consider extras, not a regular weekly Wednesday post, nor a guest blog feature. Maybe a lot of people with a birthday on those dates search to see what happened and look at Lofty Ambitions instead of Wikipedia, or maybe we have some important keyword combination we didn’t intend. We surmise, though, that the interest is in the piece’s opening content: the Cold War began on August 29, 1949, when the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb.
Last Thanksgiving, we visited the Atomic Testing Museum—a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate with extensive archives—when we were in Las Vegas. It’s just a mile off the strip. Doug’s father, an engineer, came along. We have plans to go back; Anna has an institutional grant to do museum and archival research there. Atomic testing was a hallmark of the Cold War that began in 1949, and is visually represented by Isao Hashimoto’s multimedia artwork “1945-1998” (click here and press the play button).
Of course, as Hashimoto’s representation indicates, the testing program really began with the Trinity atomic test on July 16, 1945, and the massive Manhattan Project that led to those first three atomic weapons. Over the past week or so, we’ve refreshed our background knowledge, discovering and rediscovering narratives and details by watching documentary films.
One stop during our 2007 cross-country move was the Los Alamos Historical Museum. There, we purchased a copy of the video Remember Los Alamos: World War II. This 1993 production of the Los Alamos Historical Society depicts what life was like during the Manhattan Project. Dozens of project veterans were interviewed for the film, and the interviewees included project scientists, members of the Special Engineer Detachments (SEDs), Women’s Army Corp (WACs), homemakers, students, and local Native Americans—some of whom were living and working on the land prior to the project and at Los Alamos during the war.
The film splits its time between the activities of the very well-known personages—J. Robert Oppenheimer and Leslie Groves—and folks such as Jerry Roensch, an Army WAC who worked as a telephone operator from March 1944 until the middle of 1946. Jerri Stone Roensch’s story, also recounted in her book about her time at Los Alamos, Life Within Limits (published by the Los Alamos Historical Society in 1993 and reissued in 2002), is very typical of the second group of Manhattan Project personnel. She came to the high desert of New Mexico, fell in love with the landscape and a boy, Arno Roensch, a scientific glass blowing trumpet player, and never left.
Next up on our viewing list is an episode entitled “The Manhattan Project” from the History Channel’s Modern Marvels series. In standard History Channel style, the program attempts to wow you with a litany of facts and figures. With a project the size and scope of the Manhattan Engineer District—originally a district within the Army Corp of Engineers headquartered in Manhattan, New York—it’s relatively easy to overwhelm the viewer with details that reflect the projects Brobdingnagian reach. The Y-12 and K-25 plants at Oak Ridge are particularly apt examples of the outsized proportions of the Manhattan Project.
These two plants functioned to separate and enrich Uranium 235 from Uranium 238, Y-12 using electromagnetic calutrons and K-25 through gaseous diffusion. The Y-12 plant required miles and miles of wire for its magnetic coils. When it became obvious that wartime demands made obtaining the necessary amounts of copper impossible, 15,000 tons of silver were borrowed from the U.S. Treasury (the silver was returned after the war). The K-25 plant is the largest single factory building ever created. Shaped like a U, each arm of the plant is a half-mile long by 1,000 feet wide. The building totals over 2,000,000 square feet. Together, Y-12 and K-25 consumed fully 10% of all of the electricity produced in the U.S. during 1944.
In that late August post that’s holding at the top of our rankings, we talk about some other occurrences, too. Space Shuttle Discovery first took flight on August 30, 1984. That’s an important happening for us because we recently traveled to Kennedy Space Center to see Discovery’s final launch, which was delayed (see our “Countdown to the Cape Series” on October 27–November 7).
The Space Shuttle still sits on pad 39A, right where we left it. This afternoon, NASA held a press conference: they are not ready for the December 3-7 launch window. Cracks in stringers of the external fuel tank are troublesome because they are unexpected. NASA wonders whether stress was introduced in the manufacturing or transportation of the tank, only to show up later during cryo-loading of the fuel. Launch and ascent shift stress to different areas—what if cracks show up then? If one weakness got through the process, what else might have been missed? “We’re not quite there,” the representative at Johnson Space Center said. “We really need to understand our risk.”
The launch date remains up in the air. Officially, Discovery will launch no earlier than December 17, with a four-day window. “But a lot of data has to come together to support that,” another representative said. A launch that late in the year means reconfiguring the onboard computers during a “quiet” time in the mission, too, as we roll over into 2011. We’re not booking a flight to Florida in December—not yet.